The humorous essay is an artform, one that has been perfected by the likes of gay writers including David Sedaris and the late David Rakoff. It’s a style of prose that can be as entertaining as it is enlightening. Gary Janetti is another gay writer who is well aware of the benefits of laughter. As a producer and writer for queer sitcoms including Will & Grace and Vicious, Janetti was good at tickling our funny bones. That ability also carries over to the page in Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute) (Holt, 2022), a collection of 18 linked essays that follow Janetti from his teen years through his 20s to the present, all the while providing multiple opportunities to laugh out loud. Janetti was generous enough to answer a few questions in advance of the publication of the book.
Gregg Shapiro: Gary, I’d like to begin the interview by asking you to say something about your fondness for parentheses, beginning with the one in the title of your book Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute) and continuing throughout the 18 essays.
Gary Janetti: I guess it’s a device that works for me, that allows me to kind of do asides. It’s like talking to the audience, if you will. It allows you to kind of break out of it and get even a bit more personal or a little bit more kind of conversational. But I don’t know why. I just started doing it and it works for me.
GS: A majority of the essays take readers into your past. Were you a journal keeper or did you rely on memory when it came to writing about events from that time?
GJ: No, I never kept a journal. I think somebody gave me a journal once when I was in college, and I wrote in it the day that I got it. “I’m gonna write in this every day for the rest of my life!” And that was the last time I ever wrote in it. I rely on my memory.
GS: In terms of your writing process, when it comes to creating the essays, are they created via writing prompts or inspiration, or a combination of both?
GJ: There are things that have stuck with me from my past. I feel like if they stuck with me, they stuck with me for a reason. So maybe I jot down just like a few words of what those things are that are still kind of present in me. And then I just start writing and kind of let it be what it wants to be. Usually, I can find some kind of connection to something else, a reason why it’s something that has stayed with me. But I allow that to happen almost being of consciousness.
GS: Do the essays in the book appear in the order in which they were written?
GJ: They do. I thought after I finished, I didn’t know if I would want to keep them in that order. But I guess I had an instinct that hopefully, they would stay in that order because it felt like that’s the order they wanted to be in.
GS: It actually reads in an organic way, so yes, that makes sense. Speaking of order, Start Without Me opens with “The Carol Burnett Show” essay, in which you talk about not telling her how much of an influence she was on you when you met her. Even so, do you think you might try to get a copy of your book to her?
GJ: [Laughs] that’s a good question. And the answer is yes. Yeah, I will, definitely.
GS: Public access TV host and superstar Robin Byrd also gets mentioned in the essay “J’s.” Will you be sending her a copy of your book?
GJ: I hadn’t thought of that, Gregg. But now that you mentioned it, why not? Are you aware of The Robyn Byrd Show?
GS: Of course, yes. I didn’t live in New York. But my friend Denise, who lived in New York, once sent me a VHS tape that she had made of it.
GJ: Yeah, it’s so specific. It was our Watch What Happens Live [laughs]!
GS: Well, with a lot more going on, including stripping and nudity.
GJ: It felt like there was something very sweet about it, even though she was interviewing porn stars. Not that one is exclusive of the other. But it had this kind of “Let’s put on a show” charm to it that, in hindsight now, I’m like, “Awww.”
GS: “Awww,” is perfect. In the essay “Teaching Ten Little Fingers to Play,” you write about the song “Hard Candy Christmas” from the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Would you care to share your thoughts on the renditions of that song performed by Dolly Parton in the movie and/or RuPaul’s rendition from his 1997 holiday album?
GJ: Oh, I didn’t know RuPaul had a rendition. I’ll have to listen to that. I obviously love Dolly’s rendition. But, at the time, this was before the film, so what I was listening to and what I was fixated on was the original cast recording. There was no film at that time. Also, just the sheet music. I just liked the song so much [laughs]. I didn’t realize how kind of inappropriate it was for a 12 or 13-year-old. But at the same time, incredibly appropriate.
GS: In the “Pen Pals” essay you write about your tense experience in Long Beach, Calif., and even go as far as to say that the Golden State is not for you. However, you now live in LA. What was it about California that changed for you?
GJ: I think I’m being a little flip when I say it. But that initial trip, when I was 20 or 21, wasn’t what I had pictured in my head that it was going to be, just like most things are not. I conjured something incredibly magical and television-esque and it was just kind of lonely and upsetting; it was more that. But I always was kind of drawn to LA from watching it on TV [laughs]. It seemed so fabulous.
GS: While most of the essays have a strong comedic element, there are also serious moments, such as in the “Grandma” essay when you hear the story about the grandmother you never knew defending the gay nephew of one of her neighbors. Please say something about how you approach serious subject matter versus humorous material.
GJ: By trying not to think too much of it. By trying to be honest as best I could. By just trying to write exactly what I felt. I think that’s it. I didn’t really approach it any differently. I allowed myself to not worry about having to be funny.
GS: It takes the pressure off.
GJ: Yeah. I was like, I’m not going to worry about having to be funny and having to be clever or having to make a joke or find a way. If something happens, it’s how I’m feeling as I’m writing this, and what I have to say is organic to it, that that’s OK. But I’m not going to worry with some of these about whether or not they’re funny. I’m going to hope that the audience will be along, regardless.
GS: A few times in the book you refer to items from your past, followed by the comment, “I still have mine.” Would you say that you are a packrat?
GJ: No, the opposite. I actually only said “I still have mine” for two things. One is the card that gets me into the Roxy for free. So that’s in a shoebox. The other is the keychain they gave us when we went to the last performance of the original Broadway run of A Chorus Line. It’s a keychain in the shape of a ticket. I have that in the same shoebox where the card is. So, literally I have a shoebox, maybe. The other things I said that I don’t still have, like the program to Star Wars or my high school yearbook or things like that. I’m the opposite of a pack rat. I get rid of everything.
GS: So, basically anything that can fit in a shoebox stays.
GJ: Yeah, I literally have a shoebox [laughs]. I seem to accumulate mostly books. I read a lot and I have a lot of books. I love books. I have books in boxes that I’ve donated and that I give and that I keep and stuff. But that’s it.
GS: The “Commencement Address” and “Trip Advisor Review” essays are in a different voice than the others. Please say something about why you wanted to include them in the book?
GJ: In the previous book that I wrote, “Do You Mind If I Cancel?”, I did the same thing. There are a few essays that step outside of it a little. It’s just playing with the form somewhat. And it’s also a way of kind of saying two things at once. With the “Commencement Address,” a lot of it is just looking back on all the things that I thought were so important at the time that weren’t really going to have any bearing on my life or probably not on most people’s lives after they graduate from college. Yet there are certain very basic things that are important which you don’t kind of even think of, like don’t be an asshole. These are simpler things to remember, and that have served me well. It was a way to say something in a different way. It’s the same thing with the “Trip Advisor Review,” because I’m obsessed with traveling. I have kind of OCD qualities about how I like things to be. I read tons of Trip Advisor reviews before I go to anything. I thought it would be a way to play with that form, but then see if there was something that I could say about what it’s like when you travel and maybe why I get so obsessive about things and what’s going on underneath. Maybe there was a way to do that in a different kind of format. That’s why I like to play with other ways of telling a story if you will.
GS: Your husband Brad Goreski appears in the “Destination Weddings” essay. How do you negotiate writing about him – for example, does he have to approve of the way he’s represented?
GJ: No, no, not at all. He only just read it. He probably read it around the same time you read it. There’s nothing to negotiate. I could write anything that I wanted. He appeared in the first book, I think, a bit more than he appears in this book. I actually thought he might appear more in here. What I’m writing about is mostly a time way before him, but I’m looking at it from now, so he becomes a part of that. He trusts me. He doesn’t read anything until it’s literally done. That’s just how I am. I don’t like people, aside from my editor [reading it]. I’d rather just get it done.